Version tested: PlayStation 2
It'd be very easy to saddle up on my gigantic building-straddling horse and fire rockets down at Rockstar for the bloodless cash-in exercise that is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. Five and a half years (and five games) down the line, and barely a technical improvement worth a damn. This is a game that's not only showing its age, but begging for loose change.
It's also quite reasonable to take a more forgiving view of the return of an old friend. This is, after all, a reworking of one of our all-time favourite games, released at a tempting price. Sure, it unapologetically recycles the Vice City environments, but spruces it up with 59 new missions, a fresh storyline to work through, new characters to meet, and includes probably the finest soundtrack ever to grace a videogame. What's not to like?
I guess the answer to that is simple: Rockstar has been stubbornly resistant to change. Back in 2001 and 2002 when free-roaming sandbox games were revolutionary, we could forgive slightly dodgy combat, an unhelpful camera system and downright annoying inability to checkpoint progress or autosave after a successful mission. The rest of the game was so breathtakingly fresh and ambitious compared to what was out there that such issues were somewhat glossed over.
But in early 2007, Rockstar has some serious competition to contend with, and even some of the lesser contenders have managed to fix all of the problems we've just mentioned. Take your pick: The Godfather, Saints Row, Mercenaries, Scarface, Crackdown. They might not have the personality of the GTA games, but they all do the gameplay basics far better now, and going back to The Way Things Were is a horribly jarring experience.
Although it's fair to say that playing Vice City Stories on a PS2 is a slightly more pleasurable experience than on the PSP, the controls still feel hobbled in many of the areas that matter. The on-foot controls feel disappointingly out of touch with what we'd expect from a modern videogame, with an unforgivably rubbish auto aim system that routinely gets you into trouble. If it's not merrily targeting innocents whenever you hit R1, it's yanking the camera behind you to follow someone entirely irrelevant to what's going on. Taking manual aim might be the solution, if it weren't such a complete faff to do so. Name another game that makes you auto target with R1 first and then requires you to click down L3? It's beyond horrible. And worse still, even when you do manage to activate manual aim, the glacial pace at which the reticule moves across the screen renders it completely redundant when four Cholo goons are charging at you with bats. All Rockstar had to do was implement a standard two stick manual aiming system by default, with R1 for lock on like everyone else and the whole game improves in an instant.
Also, exactly how hard can it be to checkpoint progress mid-mission, or auto save after finishing one, or let you simply retry a failed mission? To force the player to laboriously waste ages driving back to a safe house to save a game is bad enough. But to make players go through the same bits of a mission over and over (and often over and over and over and over) again when all you need to do is that final annoyingly tough bit is just a bloody minded, thoughtless game design choice in 2007. We've come to expect games to checkpoint since well before even GTA III came out, so for Rockstar to expect us to put up with it these days is asking a lot. It's like this generation's equivalent of the one-hit-kill, and there's no place for it in such a high profile game.
Faces of Wart
And so, if your love of GTA knows no bounds and you can still tolerate such fundamental issues, then you'd still expect the pros to outweigh the cons. We came to this really expecting to love it, warts and all, but didn't quite appreciate how many of the little things would annoy me. Yet, even when you force yourself to grind your way through the missions, it's hard not feel disappointed at the general dip in quality on show in most other areas of the game. Not only do many (most?) of the missions lack flair, but the characters and storyline woven into the action feels uninspired compared with previous GTAs. In the past, GTA could charm us into submission with the kind of top notch voice work and razor sharp writing that, frankly, embarrassed other games by comparison. Vice City Stories, though, feels like a bad cover version, full of grotesque caricatures with grudges that make little sense for you to get involved with. If they were funny, it would help, but they're mainly just objectionable idiots with annoying accents and bad lines.
GTA stories are hardly known for their plausibility, but Vic Vance's spiral into a life of criminal activities, gratuitous violence and wanton destruction feels like a petty join-the-dots exercise to get you to kill an awful lot of people for the sake of it. Kicking off in an army barrack on the western edge of the two islands, you're drawn into running errands for money that soon get you kicked out. From there, the kind of missions on offer just descend into GTA cliché: mass murdering rampages and tiresome fetch quests simply because some disfunctional low-life said so.
One mission midway through just summed up the pointlessness of it all for me: a woman tells you that she has employed some heavies to bump off a welfare officer - so you're basically tasked with bumping them off to solve the problem. Hey, how about just telling them that it's all been a terrible mistake and not to bother? There's no real sense of purpose for furthering your criminal career because it inevitably results in more of these idiots coming out of the woodwork to give you more cut and paste missions.
Vice City Stories tries to make things more expansive (and therefore more interesting) by introducing a new Empire building element to the gameplay - but compared to other games that have tried it (namely The Godfather) it feels little more than something bolted on that doesn't really add anything more than random battles. Once you've progressed about a quarter of the way into the main missions, you'll notice various businesses appear on the map which you can choose to take over, such as loan sharks, brothels and protection rackets. By simply destroying a car parked out the front, you'll kick off a short-lived battle with various gang members, which then allows you to go inside, kill the remainder of the gang, bust up the furniture and buy the business. At that point you can set up a small, medium or big time business of your choice and watch the money roll in.
If you fancy, you can also partake in some side missions to 'enhance your reputation', but these involve little more than chasing around destroying delivery vans or basic fetch quests. Nothing you haven't done a gazillion times over the past five years, put it that way. In a way, empire building becomes a bit of an irritation in itself, because taking over other gang's businesses will eventually result in them attacking you - meaning you have to engage in wave upon wave of control-deficient combat to protect your turf. As we've already pointed out, that's hardly the best way to spend your time with GTA.
As ever, there are countless other optional side quests that, on paper at least, make Vice City Stories an incredibly good value for money offering. But as nice as it is to be able to dip into vigilante missions, taxi missions, races, rampages and all the others, the incentives to do so are fairly minimal compared to the effort required to clear all of them. Still, if you're the ultimate completist and enjoy mindlessly grinding through dozens of near-identical side portions, you'll be very well serviced. Me? I just wish they'd focus more on making the main dish more exciting than reheating the leftovers yet again.
Avert your eyes
Another unavoidable point to make about Vice City Stories is just how visually impoverished it looks these days. It might look just fine running on the lovely PSP display, but the same cannot be said for how it looks on modern, pin-sharp big screen TVs. Now, a game designed for the PSP was never going to dazzle us on the PS2, but it's quite painful to endure if you've been spending time with next generation games for the past year or so. Vice City was hardly pushing the technical limits of the PS2 back in 2002, so to observe the same game engine more than four years later in a barely modified state is a little depressing. We all know just what the PS2 is capable of, but VCS is a throwback to a time when juddery frame rates, limited animation and dreadfully blocky textured environments were acceptable. If you really haven't had your fill of GTA, do yourself a favour and keep it well away from a big screen high definition TV. We can't be held responsible for the damage that might occur to your mind's eye. Did Vice City really look this bad. Apparently so.
Possibly the one thing that you can't fault Vice City Stories for is the soundtrack. Even in the darkest moments during the game, you can always rely on the radio stations to pull out one absolute corker after another. While Vice City was a masterful exercise in 80s nostalgia, somehow VCS goes far, far further into the deepest recesses of our minds, pulling out not only the big hitters of the time (Relax, Blue Monday, Love Action, It's My Life, Heart of Glass, Wouldn't It Be Good, Sexual Healing), but some real cult classics (Penthouse and Pavement, A Forest, Quiet Life). With over 100 songs in there, it's an incredible journey for anyone who grew up at that time. Far more than the gameplay itself, the radio stations provided the kind of hook that kept us going even when things were getting frustrating. As ever, the chat interludes prove that when it comes to gaming audio, Rockstar is still utterly peerless. It's almost worth buying the game for the radio stations alone, they're that good.
Of course, one of the nicest things about the PSP original was the inclusion of six player multiplayer. Stripped of that novelty, the PS2 port leaves you with an underwhelming and often frustrating solo experience to justify the purchase. You could argue the toss about the game still offering an immense playground to dip in and out of as you see fit, and that's a fair point. But unlike previous GTAs, you've no longer got the novelty of exploration. Sure, some things have been changed and tweaked, but you're fundamentally running and driving around a place that most fans will have already played to death.
Put in context, there's no doubt that Vice City Stories is the weakest in the series to date: Vice City was never the most exciting and varied environment to explore the first time around; simply throwing dozens of uninspired missions at us and an unexciting empire building element into the pot doesn't make up for that. It might be cheap, and it might have more content than Liberty City Stories, and it has gaming audio to die for, but, on balance, Rockstar has milked the flaccid teat of its cash cow to the limit. There are occasional flashes of genius buried under the mountain of samey content in here, but for the most part, Vice City Stories is the kind of release that can only please the shareholders. GTA fans deserve more than this. Luckily, there's not long to wait for a real sequel to banish the memories of this opportunistic filler offering.
6 / 10